Steps 95

“Are you Clark Kent?” my wife asks me.

I’ve been telling her about this, the memoir, filling her in. She hasn’t been reading along.


“Clark Kent? You best friend slash arch rival is Lex? The girl you secretly love is named Lana?”

Oh shit, I’ve been rewriting Smallville. Obviously I chose these names. It was subconscious, unintended, but now that my wife has pointed it out, I kind of like it. Of course I’m Clark Kent. It’s my story. Why can’t I be Superman? If high school isn’t a time for dreaming I was someone else, I don’t know what is.

Here’s an admission: I like high school melodramas/comedies. TV. Movies. I’d call it a guilty pleasure if I felt at all guilty about it. They’re like milkshakes to me. I know there’s little to no nutritional value. But there’s something immensely satisfying about them. I suppose, to a large extent, this is the result of spending my formative years in the 80s and 90s when Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club launched these types of films. I often snuck downstairs to watch horror movies after my parents went to bed. But I also snuck down to watch Fast Times, since they’d recorded it off HBO but deemed me too young to watch it. I remember sitting in front the TV with a finger on the stop button, looking at Phoebe Cates removing her top in Judge Reinhold’s jackoff fantasy. If I heard the slightest noise in the house, I’d hit stop and pretend I was watching whatever station was on, something benign, maybe the news, as if me watching the news when I was twelve wouldn’t rouse my parents’ suspicion.

Of course, none of my high school experience was actually reflected there. The girls I knew didn’t act like the girls in Fast Times. No one ordered a pizza to class. It wasn’t like Pretty in Pink or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Sixteen Candles. But I still watched. Like so many romantic young boys of my time, I wanted to be Lloyd Dobler holding up a boombox, blasting Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” I wanted to be capable of these grand romantic gestures. The Wonder Years also made its run while I was in middle school and junior high. I wanted what Kevin Arnold had with Winnie Cooper. I wanted a girl next door, a love that was preordained, that seemed fated. I wanted a first kiss on the playground. I wanted my life to be just as melodramatic as the shows. But it never was. Lex had this with Elisa. I looked around, and it seemed like others had it. But it didn’t happen for everyone. I couldn’t count on it. Maybe I’d get lucky, but mostly, I was alone. I didn’t know how to open my mouth. I had a deep-seated fear of rejection. If anything, my high school experience was captured best in the movie Can’t Hardly Wait, which came out a year after I had graduated (not surprisingly it was directed by two people who’d lived in Abington and Lower Moreland, townships that aren’t far from Cheltenham). I’d even written a letter to Lana, like the character Preston in the film does with Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Amanda Beckett. My letter detailed the way I’d felt for years, the way I’d held it inside. But instead of bringing it to a party to give to her, instead of having her find it on the couch next to her and reading it and falling in love with me, I mailed it. I never heard back. I admit I didn’t expect to. It was a final call into the void. It was a way of letting go. Life isn’t a melodramatic teen movie. As much as I might have liked it to be.

If I could have actually spoken to Lana, would things have been different? I said that I’d fallen in love, and this was true. As an adult, I can write it off. I can point to all the reasons why I felt the way I felt and dismiss them. I knew things about her. She liked a lot of the same things I liked, music-wise, movie-wise (I admit, I adopted some, like listening to Tori Amos, merely because I saw her wearing the concert t-shirt), but I didn’t know her. She didn’t know the first thing about me. As an adult I could say this is no foundation for love. I could write it off as an infatuation. She was pretty. She was brunette, brown-eyed. Big brown eyes, the type I’ll surrender to. The type I’ve pursued again and again over the years. I was sad. I was lonely. That first year of high school hadn’t gone as I’d wanted. I needed something or someone to fixate on, and I, perhaps naively, developed a belief she could pull me out. I was searching for a wistful, halcyon time, inspired by Siamese Dream, and the most wistful, halcyon time I could remember, the time I was happiest, was when Lex and Elisa were together. Lana had been there. She was part of that. I could say, in retrospect, that what I felt for her wasn’t genuine. But saying that feels like a disservice to the fourteen-year-old boy who fell in love with her, the boy for whom she was important, the boy who wanted to believe in fate and true love (I don’t believe in either anymore, truth be told. Fate and true love are inventions of film and song, and while they’re nice in the picture shows, real life is more complex. What we call romantic love, I find, is more frequently lust).

Still, I believed it then (and I still believe in love, though my understanding of it has changed), and since I believed it then, I’ll treat it as truth, respect the way the fourteen-year-old me felt. I can’t deny her the place she held in my life. It’s funny to write this, (and if Lana’s reading, I hope it doesn’t embarrass her too much), but she played such a foundational role in my starting to write. She inspired me. She served as a muse where one was lacking before. I wanted to say things to her and couldn’t so I wrote them down. I put everything I’d ever wanted to tell her in songs. And if I hadn’t started writing songs, I wouldn’t have started writing stories. And if I hadn’t started writing stories, I wouldn’t be writing this now, whatever value it has. But ultimately, the question is pointless. If I could have spoken would things have been different? After all, I was awkward, but I wasn’t hideous. There were girls who liked me. I was aware of that. But I only wanted Lana. I couldn’t settle again as I had with Susan Osmond. I couldn’t pretend to like someone I didn’t just to have a girlfriend. And the fact remains, if I could have spoken I would have been a different person. And if Lana had loved that person back, she’d have loved a different person. It wouldn’t be me.

I suppose there’s some kind of similar psychology in every first love to a greater or lesser complexity. Naturally, everyone’s scared of rejection. But for me, it was preternatural, elemental. By and large, it had to do with my family, with my father. Perhaps it’s struck you as odd that I’ve made it sixty thousand words or so into this memoir and haven’t mentioned my family much. On the one hand, this is because there wasn’t much drama in my family. My parents provided me a solid foundation from which to enter the world. My mom was steady, reliable, a loving person. I can’t imagine anyone having done a better job of raising us than her. But here I have another admission to make: whenever I’ve said “dad” in the previous pages, I’ve been referring to two different men. This is where things get complicated. I generally don’t explain unless I have to, and in the previous pages, given that I mostly mentioned my dad driving me somewhere or buying me something, I didn’t feel it was necessary to delineate between the two. But now, in explaining this, that dynamic becomes important, integral.

I was born when my mom was eighteen going on nineteen. She had dated my father (in this case, my biological father) for a time, but had decided not to marry him, which was a brave choice, but then, that’s my mom. She has a mind of her own and no one tells her what to do. When I was young, she didn’t explain her reasoning. She never uttered a word against him but treated him with respect and cordiality. And my father stayed in my life. He saw me on Saturdays, made an effort to show up for me. As I got older, he supported me in my interests. He came to baseball games and took me to the music store so I could ogle guitars. He gave me my first job washing his cars on the weekend and showed me the correlation between chores and cash. And his parents, my grandparents, lavished attention on me whenever he took me to see them. He bought me my first black Ibanez electric guitar, my Ovation acoustic, my Rickenbacker twelve-string. I suppose like many weekend parents, he didn’t know how to relate to me in conversation. There was some guilt he wasn’t in my life every day, and what he couldn’t give me in affection, he made up for in gifts, which led to no small amount of jealousy from my siblings.

When I was three, my mother married my stepfather (for the purposes of delineation, I’ll call him my dad and my biological father my father). Though I’ve done the math since and realize that she was pregnant at the time with my brother, it wasn’t a typical shotgun wedding. She had known my dad (stepfather) since she was a little girl. They had grown up across the street from one another. My father (bio) continued to be in my life on weekend while my mother and dad (step) moved us into an apartment in Willow Grove. The family had a few years of struggle as my parents saved their money. My dad worked in a factory and my mom stayed home to watch us, me and my brother, and eventually we moved to our house in Glenside, around the corner from his parents and hers, so that my grandparents were also a presence in my life.

I’m sure there were feelings underneath the surface that I wasn’t aware of. My father was likely wounded that my mother hadn’t married him. But there was no obvious overt conflict. He and my stepfather got along. I called them both dad. It never seemed odd to me. Friends asked and I explained and they got it, though I always had to pause to explain which dad I was talking about when they came up in conversation. As I got older, however, I started to think more about the situation. For every child, there’s a moment when your parents become human beings. When you’re very young, they’re gods, absolute authority. What they say goes, they’re faultless. And yet, as you mature, you see them as people. And this started to happen with my father before I was ready. Cracks in the veneer. Facades giving way.

At first it was simple arguments he refused to give up on even when he was clearly wrong. I started to notice he did this around the time I turned ten. I remember a few. He argued that Sinbad, the comedian, was white. This was at my parents’ house.

Have you ever heard his standup? we countered, for it wasn’t just me arguing but my mom and my stepdad. He talks about being black. He’s on A Different World. He’s not the token white character. He’s a black guy!

“Well, he’s the whitest black guy I’ve ever seen.”

He tried to argue too that Spain was part of Africa and not Europe.

“Do you have a globe?” I asked. “I can go and get one. We can settle this now.”

In all cases, he refused to cede his point, and I became intensely frustrated. He wasn’t arguing opinions, he was going against established fact. At these times, he was difficult to deal with, just his stubbornness. I started to wonder, was this the reason my mom didn’t marry him? Am I like him? This last part threw me into a tailspin, because as much as I loved him (and still do), I saw the way people reacted to him. My mom and stepdad didn’t have to say anything. They just had to look at him like, really? that’s what you think? Sinbad’s white and Spain is in Africa? There were times in arguments with others, especially Lex, where even though I was almost entirely certain I was correct, I would cede the point to avoid being like this.

The way he drove scared me, too. One day, when we were out, he passed a slow moving car in a stretch with a double yellow line. The car started to honk. At the next stoplight, the guy in the car behind us yelled something. My father got out of the car. The man got out of the car. They were screaming in each other’s faces. My father insisted the double yellow line meant he could pass. I was afraid they’d come to blows. I was only eleven or twelve. He should have just kept driving. People scream from their car windows all the time. People do stupid things. My father had just done one of them. But he insisted he was in the right. Just get back in the car, I thought. Just get back in the car. I wanted to go, but he was arguing. Like most arguments, this ended with both men backing down. My father tried to comfort me. But I was shaken. Why had he done it? Why was it some important to him to be right? Of course, now, as an adult, I get it. I have the same moments. I’m in the car. Someone yells at me. Does something stupid. I get enraged. When I’m alone, I might flip them off. Shout. But I try to hold back with my kids in the car, I try to remember. I’m not saying there’s a one-to-one correlation, but I didn’t get my license until I was twenty-eight. My wife made it an ultimatum. Our marriage was contingent on it. And incidents like this one might have had something to do with my reticence.

As my teenage years approached, I observed my father more closely. He lived on the second floor of his parents’ house. Whether he’d moved back in to save money or be there to take care of them wasn’t clear and I didn’t ask. He never had girlfriends. He seemed sad all the time. When he took me to visit his friends, they were almost all divorcees or bachelors with half-finished construction projects in their houses. They were nice, but they seemed sad too. It was inevitable I’d compare these men with my stepdad. My stepdad was married and raising his kids. He loved my mom. They got along well. He was steadfast. He went to work at the factory at five am, came home at three, took us to music lessons, sports practices. He washed dishes, took out the trash. He never complained. He was dark-haired and so was I and sometimes when he took me to get my haircut as a kid,  people would assume that I was his biological son. “He looks just like you,” the barber would say. And I’d beam. Struggling with my natural father’s foibles, I was happy to be mistaken for his son. It wasn’t that I wanted to reject my parentage. But as I discovered girls and got crushes, I worried I’d be rejected as he was. I worried I’d never have anyone. I’m not sure he was over my mother yet. But it had been years. Shouldn’t he have recovered. Got back out there. Tried to find someone else? Part of him was in me, so was his fate mine? I was fourteen and thinking I was doomed to be alone. That because I looked like him (and I did, despite the barber’s comments), I too would be cast aside, ignored. The best way to avoid rejection was to not ask, to never want anything, or at least, never admit it. And so I kept it all locked inside of me. If I didn’t say anything, there was always some hope that she would notice me.

All that year, sophomore year, I held my silence. I couldn’t catch a breath when she was around. I ached, my chest hurt. I hadn’t revealed to anyone how I felt, especially Lex. At first, this was partly because I worried if I told him, he’d like her. Set his sights on her. Win her where I couldn’t. Then I kept quiet because he had started to date Nora. Before they made it official, he’d been spending a lot of time with her. Night at her house. Walking around the neighborhood. I was there for some of them. We were part of a group. Drew Schiff was dating Nora’s friend Mary. Sonny Ford liked their friend Laney and then Marnie. All of us went to the Irish Center together. They held monthly dances. We’d stay at the Dougherty’s house after those dances. To be in love, Lex explained, you have to know the person, you have to form a bond. So I knew if I admitted I liked Lana, he’d ask why, and I didn’t have an explanation. It wasn’t rational. Rather what I longed for was the mystery, the process. I wanted to get to know her. I wanted to learn everything about her. Lana and I had geometry and western civ together. One day she wore a Violent Femmes New Times tour tee-shirt, so I went out and bought the album. I’d already purchased Under the Pink. I’d seen the God video on 120 Minutes, but hadn’t really liked it, but I liked the album. “Pretty Good Year” was my favorite song, but I also liked “Space Dog.” And when I got around to buying Little Earthquakes, it was even better. “Tear in Your Hand” destroyed me. I turned Drew Schiff on to Tori Amos and we’d drive around in his puttering Gray Ford Escort listening to her late at night, silent, each thinking his own thoughts, mine were mostly of Lana. I knew she liked R.E.M too, but I was already an avid fan of theirs, and I listened to all this music as if it would somehow give me insight into her.

Lana’s sister Rebecca was in our western civ class too, and I’d listen to conversations they had. They talked about movies. They’d seen Pulp Fiction, and one day they were talking about it. I’d seen it as well. I wanted to speak up and say how much I’d like it. Quote lines, “Yeah baby, you’d dig it the most,” which was what John Travolta said to Samuel L. Jackson when Jackson declared, referring to Amsterdam’s drug policy, “I’m going, that’s all there is to it. I’m fucking going.” I saw an opening. I could show that I liked the lesser-quoted lines. No obvious “Royale with Cheese” stuff for me, although “Say what again, I dare you, I double dare you,” was probably my favorite exchange in the whole film. I had this opening, and yet I became mute. My throat had closed up. I could talk to Rebecca, that was no problem. As long as Lana wasn’t around. But as soon as she showed up, I turned inward, drifted away. They were identical twins. Rebecca was beautiful too, so my problem wasn’t a simple inability to talk to attractive girls. My problem was talking to Lana. I had never had this problem with Jennifer Mills. I hadn’t told her I liked her, that much was true, and I might have messed things up that way. But I could at least hold down my end of a rudimentary conversation. This was different. This was atmospheric, pressure bearing down on all sides. Her mere presence obliterated me. The longer I nursed it, the worse it became.

And yet, in spite of this, I couldn’t wait to see her every day. Geometry was third period. Western civ was eighth and last. In between, I paid attention in my classes and did well. Early in the year, they’d handed us a 3×5 card in homeroom with a number on it. I had no idea what it was. As they passed them around, I turned to Aidan Kostas. The number on mine was 66.

“What’s this?”

“Class rank,” Aidan told me.

“Rank?” I said. “You mean, it’s a competition?”

“Didn’t you know?”

The fact was I didn’t. I’d heard words like valedictorian mentioned in movies and TV. But my parents hadn’t gone to college. I don’t think either did too well academically in high school. They had pushed me to get good grades. But neither one of them had explained that they would rank us accordingly. That my academic performance would be gauged in this way. All of a sudden, knowing that I was being judged had changed things. Obviously, if my first year put me at 66th in a class of about 220, I wasn’t climbing to number 1 (given the competition at Cheltenham, I doubt I could have been 1 even if I’d tried earlier). But there was no way I was going to let myself finish 66th. I was going to improve. This meant I had to be serious, pay attention. It meant that, even though my crush on Lana distracted me, I couldn’t let it get in the way of climbing up in their ranking system. So I started to pay closer attention. Whereas before, I’d been able to drift by and maintain a steady B average with a few As based simply on my memory, I now engaged more fully, asked questions, and actually studied. Of course, I maintained the pretense that I didn’t. A lot of kids did. The posturing it was possible to ace tests without any effort. You get the grade back and show it to the guy behind you, who in western civ would have been Aidan, and declare, “Think what I could have got if I’d studied.” But it wasn’t true. I had put in the effort. We all did. And it made me tired. And my inability to speak with Lana made me depressed.

I remember sleep from my sophomore year of high school. I slept all the time. I got home and ate and plopped down on the love seat in front of our TV and slept. I woke later and did homework and went back to sleep. During the day, I slept in study hall, a big pool of drool collecting beneath me on the desk. I slept on the bus. I slept because I was tired, and I slept to avoid reality. I had a few friends, a couple more than freshman year, but it hadn’t gone back to being like eighth grade. I learned that goofing off in class drew negative attention from the teachers and stopped, so they’d grade me better. This, in particular, occurred to me in Mr. Umfer’s French III class. In the beginning of the year, I made jokes about him, harmless jokes really. Jokes that he invited and so I thought they were okay. And I got Bs, but as soon as I stopped, he started to curve up. I should  have learned the lesson the year before in Mr. Thomas’s physical science class, but I hadn’t. It was one of those occasions where I was slow on the uptake.

I’d been sitting in the back of the room, last desk way on the outside row next to the windows. Mr Thomas had liked me. The first two quarters he’d curved my 89 average up to an A. But one day, I was goofing off. I sat with Tariq Sabir and Abby Grossman. The three of us were joking about something, quietly. I said something funny and Tariq laughed.

“I don’t suppose you’d like to share that with the rest of the class, Jason,” Mr. Thomas said from the front.

I shook my head.

“I don’t like what I’m hearing back there.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t be listening,” I said.

The words were out of my mouth before I stopped myself. I knew that it was absolutely idiotic to say, but I’d blurted this impulsively. It was too late now. And instead of saying, “Sorry, I didn’t meant that,” as I often do now when I misspeak as an adult, instead of going up and apologizing to a teacher who had been good to me, I let it ride. Like I was somehow cool or rebellious for doing so. When I got my next report card those two As had been changed back to Bs. So I learned over the course of that experience and when my initial joking with Umfer went astray that it was best to keep quiet. I’d make a quip here or there, but they were benign, never edgy or disrespectful. Instead, I’d sit and listen in western civ as Dan Sluzas drew our teacher Mr. Cooper into conversations about Sweden and sheep to waste time. I scribbled on the back of my marble-bound notebook and every once in a while, looked over and watched Lana, who sat two rows across from me, three seats back.

On the back of my notebook, I had used red ink to fill in the white dots to read, “What is wrong with me?” and used blue ink to make this clearer. The words weren’t my own. They were the chorus from Nirvana’s “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.” But they might as well have been mine. It was a question I asked myself often. Why couldn’t I speak. That itself song was anthemic. I often thought of them playing it during their Live and Loud MTV performance. It had aired a few weeks before, but we had watched it on New Year’s Eve as ’93 turned into ’94. We were at Sonny Ford’s house. We’d watched it and roughhoused and midway through the performance, Sonny tackled Drew onto the coffee table and it collapsed and Sonny’s mother had screamed at him from the bedroom she hardly ever left when she was there and we all fled the house. But not before I got to see most of Nirvana’s concert. Kurt Cobain’s hair whipped about in the wind. The power of the sound. He was so fucking cool. If only I were that cool. If only I could stand on a stage and play like that and sing, maybe I could speak to her. I couldn’t tell her how I felt, I couldn’t ask her out. She had a boyfriend anyway. Some upperclassman. Scruffy. Goatee’d. I called it a dirt patch. He wore a bandana. I was jealous and deemed it stupid. I didn’t even know the guy’s name and had nothing against him except that he was dating Lana, so I hated him. It wouldn’t be the last time I hated a rival, but I guess that’s fairly common when you’re in love.

My bedroom was my refuge. I often sat reading or watching TV or playing guitar. Sometime I stared out the window. But when my thoughts became too unsettling and my feelings too much to contain, I went out and walked. Most of the time, I walked at night. I walked to the bookstore. There was a Barnes and Noble in Jenkintown and I’d go there. Or, once I got a job, I’d go to Strawberries music up the street from the Barnes and Noble and buy a CD or a videocassette. But all these walks led to Lex’s house. I’d always stop by whether announced or unannounced and he knew it and accepted it. He’d welcome me in and we’d play guitars or listen to the CD I’d bought. If Lex wasn’t there, I went past his house and turned the corner and went past the house where Lana lived. I didn’t linger or ogle. I wasn’t try to creep or stalk, just pass by. Maybe try to be somewhere close to where she was for just a few minutes. The proximity made this possible without it seeming strange.

“Oh, you live here,” I rehearsed. “Yeah, Lex lives right over there. I was just heading home.”

Of course, I knew where she lived. I would just act awkwardly in pretending I didn’t. But I’d have to pretend. Otherwise it would look like I came there on purpose to see her and I couldn’t admit I wanted to see her. I’d look up as I passed and wonder which light was hers. And then I’d pass. I hoped to run into her, pass a couple words, say hello, have her see me, stand out in her mind, but it never happened. I turned down Bent Road and went to a park on the corner of Bent and Greenwood. I didn’t know the park’s name. There was a bench and a pond and the bench overlooked the pond and I’d sit on the bench and imagine her coming and seeing me and talking to me. The nights were beautiful. I’d sit and think. And sitting and thinking was wonderful. I watched the sky and the moon from my seat. Its reflection on the water. I listened to the insects. And I thought about writing something, something that would let her know me, that would let her see who I was in ways I could never express through simple speech. I’d have to perform the song somewhere she’d see it. I couldn’t just call up and start singing like Lex had done with Jennifer Mills. She wouldn’t even know the song was hers. It would just be amazing. She’d hear it, and I’d tell her later, “That was for you.” But I still had to find the forum. And more importantly, I still had to write the song.

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